© 1997 New York Times
February 4, 1997 · Editorial

A Proposal to Computerize Campaign Giving


ALBANY, N.Y. -- For years, New York state's system of filing campaign contribution records has been considered one of the most cumbersome and archaic in the country.

Every several months, thousands of typed or hand-scribbled pages are filed with the state, creating a mountain of paperwork that defies efforts by state auditors, government watchdog groups, reporters and even candidates themselves to track the flow of money through the state's political system.

Monday, the Democrats who control the state Assembly called for legislation that officials in both parties agree would make campaign records more accessible: placing them on computer, something that 27 other states, New York City and the federal government have already done.

"It's time that we left the Stone Age," said Assemblyman Stephen B. Kaufman, D-the Bronx.

Republican legislative leaders have said they agree that the records should be computerized. But in a signal that the proposal faces a battle, the Republican Senate majority leader said Monday that he would push for a different version that includes provisions that Democrats strongly oppose. Those include setting strict limits on certain campaign contributions by labor unions, which historically have been more supportive of Democrats than Republicans.

"We're just trying to open up the process, be totally open, and level the field," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno of Rensselaer County. "Philosophically, I agree we ought to do it, they agree, it's just a question of what goes in."

The dispute over the proposal comes amid a growing national clamor to revamp federal campaign laws whose repercussions are being felt here. Given that computerizing records is considered one of the least onerous forms of change possible, some legislators believe a compromise might still be possible, despite Bruno's comments.

The Assembly bill would require all candidates for state office who raise more than $50,000 in a campaign to file a computer copy of their records with the State Board of Elections. Those records would list the names of contributors and the amounts of their donations, expenses and contributions of services or equipment. The bill would appropriate $233,000 to pay for computer and personnel costs, less than 0.001 percent of the state's $66 billion budget.

The Senate version would require candidates for local and state offices who raised more than $1,000 on a campaign to file computer records. It would also require unions to limit in-kind contributions to $5,000 a year.

Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, said through a spokesman that he supports the Senate's approach.

In New York City, candidates for city office who receive public campaign matching funds have been required to file computer records since 1989. Officials with the city's Campaign Finance Board said that using computers to sift thousands of pages of reports has made it far easier for auditors to detect excessive contributions and other violations.

For instance, computers helped auditors notice that an unusually high percentage of money given to Ron Reale, a candidate for public advocate in 1993, came from money orders. That finding led to a criminal investigation and the indictment of Reale and police union officials on racketeering charges.

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